“The road began to climb more steeply. Sun and heat. These are still the Maritime Alps, but increasingly mighty. It’s like swimming far out to sea: near the shore the waves are short, sharp, irregular – beyond they become longer and higher. It’s the same now with the mountains.” So begins the diary entry for one of Andrzej Bobkowski’s wartime bicycle trips through occupied France.
Andrzej Bobkowski left Poland for Paris in March 1939. A 26-year-old graduate of economics, he was to take an internship arranged by the Polish Ministry of Commerce and Trade. This, however, was not to be. A couple of months later, on 1st September 1939, Poland was invaded by Germany and less then a month later ceased to exist. On 10th May 1940, the Germans invaded France. 10 days later, Bobkowski started writing his wartime notebooks, which he would continue until August 1944, when American soldiers liberated Paris. After the war, Bobkowski would not return to the now-communist Poland. Instead, he boarded a ship bound for Guatemala, where he settled. For the rest of his life, he ran a shop selling airplane models (his life-time passion), writing occasionally.
In the excerpts, below we follow Bobkowski on his bicycle trip from southern France back to occupied Paris. The route – taken in full gear and provisions, and in the company of a Polish worker named Tadzio – had become a chance to encounter local people and to enjoy the pleasures of rural life. But it also offered a fresh and critical look on the foundations of European culture, which had led to war.
September 6, 1940
So we set out. Yesterday afternoon we packed almost everything. Today we rose at six and finished our preparations. Our friends left to catch a train leaving for Toulouse at a little past seven. Tadzio and I remained alone in the room, as on a battlefield. We were sorry to leave. We had grown fond of the hotel, the room, the people, of everything. And now simply to leave it all behind. Heavyhearted, we carried our saddlebags down to the garage. Then began the comedy of packing. We spent two hours loading our things, until the bicycles had begun to resemble two-humped camels. On the rear baggage rack I had the full backpack, on top of that a blanket wrapped in a slicker, on top of that a large haversack with the food, and to top it all off a mess kit clipped to the haversack, that is, to the “pantry.” On the front rack I had a haversack holding all my underwear and a bottle of wine. All this baggage weighed over thirty kilos. Tadzio’s bicycle carried a bit less than mine but was almost as heavy, since his backpack was crammed with canned food. When we tried to move the bicycles away from the wall, our hair stood on end. We could barely push them, how would we ride? We stopped by the old biddy’s for a farewell coffee. The entire street, kindly “rue du Pont-Vieux,” already knew we were parting ways. The proprietress of the grocery gave us a kilo of noodles without coupons and also some chocolate and bid us good-bye as though we were her own sons. Pouring our coffee today, the old biddy had tears in her eyes. After coffee, we went to say good-bye to the patronne of the hotel. I thanked her for everything and apologized for whatever might have seemed to her “out of order” and kissed her hand sincerely. She shook her head for a moment and burst into tears. Next she’s pressing me to her ample bosom and kissing me on the cheeks. Then I kiss her, which reduces me almost to tears. Tadzio smiles uneasily and says: “Jędruś, as God is my witness, I’m going to howl.” When it came his turn for a kiss, in fact he almost did. Madame Vitrac did not stop sniveling. I’d never thought it would be so hard for us to part. We wheeled the bicycles into the street. She stood in the doorway; behind the windows of the bistro the old biddy smiled through her tears; the Señorita leaned out the window in her dressing gown, waving, and coquettishly revealed her cleavage; and from the distance, in front of her shop the “épicerie lady” waved us good-bye.
It was ten o’clock. The sun emerged from behind the clouds, promising a beautiful day. We wheeled the bicycles around the bend, afraid to mount. In the end I was the first to risk it. Tadzio followed. Horrors! I panicked. My bicycle seemed to be collapsing, the frame twisting out of shape, something about to snap. Tadzio went white and barked: “It won’t last twenty kilometers.” We were both trembling with nervousness, so we focused all our attention on the handlebars and after a quarter-hour’s ride through town, we rolled onto the highway like two heavy tanks. There the going was easier. Little by little we got into the swing of it. Ten miles farther along, my handlebars stopped vibrating, the bicycle stopped “collapsing.” The same for Tadzio. We perked up and recovered our good humor. We’re headed for Narbonne by the old familiar road. Marvelous weather, hot. In Lézignan we took a break. I bought bread, milk, and tomatoes, a piece of cheese. Around two we drove off the side of the road under a few pines; stretched out on the dry grass in the shade, we tucked into lunch. Pure joy. We chat and eat, later as we smoke we wonder how long it will take to reach Paris. Taking even the “shorter” routes, we face sixteen hundred kilometers. Perhaps by the end of the month? Will the machines hold up? We recall our first trip. Now we have all the conveniences: a tent, which means we needn’t scour the farms for a place to sleep; and a hot meal in the evening. Unfortunately, there’s nowhere to buy fuel for the spirit stove and we have to cook on a wood fire.
Again, the marvelous feeling of the open road and freedom.
By four we are in Narbonne. Tadzio stayed with the bicycles while I went to a fishing shop to buy two bamboo rods for the tent, since we had no poles. An afternoon somnolence pervades the town, I walk the narrow streets, half asleep. It feels like a dream. I bought two bamboo rods, tied them to the frame, and on we go. Direction Béziers. Good-bye to Narbonne; it’s the last part of what has been. By now we’re really leaving “our” places behind. When will I see them again? The road to Béziers is excellent. The bicycles are moving more easily, and we take some inclines quite boldly. Descending the mountains, the tires sing on the asphalt, and the bicycle rolls like a greased ball. Twenty-seven kilometers to Béziers. We’ll tackle them in little over an hour and reach the town. It lies on the crest of a hill. Evening is already falling. With an effort we make it up the winding street to the top. Surrounded by vineyards, the city is imbued with the charm peculiar to small towns in the south of France. People are taking strolls, having drinks in the bistros, and obviously enjoying themselves. There was nothing to keep us here, so we didn’t stop. A few kilometers outside of town we began the search for a place to spend the night. After a while we turned to the left, toward the sand dunes, under the umbrellas of a few pines. It was already dusk. Tadzio gathered wood for the fire while I pitched the tent. It is well made and comfortable. A hot night fell. We lit the fire and prepared the meal. After ninety kilometers, with only a meager afternoon snack, it was hard to wait for it to be ready. I used the time to make notes while Tadzio went to pluck grapes for dessert. We stuffed ourselves to the gills.
Then a cigarette, lying on our backs, scanning the star-strewn sky, and a few moments of intense happiness. A kind of animal contentment with life. Today here, tomorrow somewhere else, sunny days and starry nights.
In the mountains, September 18, 1940
We slept practically in the open air because the shed had no more than a roof. Like submarines, we dove into the straw and kept only our periscope noses above the surface. Warm. I woke at dawn. It was already getting light. The stars were pale, mist rose from the river and spread across the pastures. The air was like springwater. I swallowed a few huge gulps and went back to sleep. After breakfast we set out again, the entire family bidding us farewell. They gave us milk and eggs for the road. They wouldn’t take any money and would have been offended had I tried to insist. Inez and Angelica waved at us for a long time. A few kilometers beyond the farm the road diverged: to the left the Route Napoléon in the direction of Digne, to the right the Route des Grandes Alpes to Barcelonnette. We bear to the right. The road began to climb more steeply. Sun and heat. These are still the Maritime Alps, but increasingly mighty. It’s like swimming far out to sea: near the shore the waves are short, sharp, irregular—beyond they become longer and higher. It’s the same now with the mountains. The Var River narrows here and is at times hard to discern amid the great boulders at the bottom of the valley. The narrow, well-paved road winds sharply and we are obliged to dismount from the bicycles. Walking slowly uphill, we talk. Tadzio prattles away, his mouth never closes. I sense we are approaching a high pass, below which is the minute village of La Salette, which looks like a settlement of doghouses. We begin the descent. Furious switchbacks, in places long tunnels. It’s already a genuine high-mountain ride. Dazed by the sun, we enter the totally dark tunnels and are blinded. We orient only by the bright spot of the exit, visible at the end. The road is designed like a difficult racecourse. From the tunnel we emerge onto a slope, fly down a few steep switchbacks, and sweep again into a tunnel, as though making a goal. We hit speeds this way that bicycles don’t usually manage—up to sixty km/hr. And so we sweep into the little town of Guillaumes. Lit by the afternoon sun, it lies, with its tightly clustered houses, at the bottom of a valley ringed by mountains. We prop our bicycles against a bench, sit down, and have a smoke.
And, for the umpteenth time, as I observe the houses, the people walking calmly and slowly in the narrow streets, visiting the little shops, I say to myself: “Here’s a place I’d like to live for a while.” A film short begins to unwind, an animated feature of dreams: annual pension at adjustable rates, like the propeller of an airplane (in case of the devaluation of the franc), three rooms with kitchen, many books, a great many books, a few pieces of good sporting equipment, skiing in winter, and Nice within reach; here there’s snow, there palm trees, lemons, and oranges, tiny clémentines, fragrant and juicy, the sea . . . How nice it would be to thumb my nose at life and fate . . .
I’m off to buy something to eat. Everything’s available, people here are STILL happy; time has broken down, like an old alarm clock, and doesn’t work and doesn’t ring. Alas, it will soon have to be taken to the watchmaker and switched to NOW-time. Then it will ring stridently . . . No—you can’t “put one over” on life or fate, as Tadzio says. Do what you like, fate will at best let you give it a tickle from time to time. The gulf between the merciless blows and relentless schemes of fate and a person’s exertions and marionette-like struggles is as wide as the gulf between the desire to possess a beautiful woman and learning to conjugate the verb amare as a way to succeed. Tadzio dozed off on the bench. I wake him and we get under way. I already know—the time has come for the world to examine its conscience and confess its sins. After which, it will—keep on sinning.
If I were God, this time around I would not give the world absolution. God is definitely too good.
The road becomes increasingly difficult and we dismount more often and walk. Around five in the afternoon Tadzio punctures his rear tire. We decide not to ride any farther and strike the tent on a small roadside clearing. Tadzio busies himself repairing the inner tube, I cook. The days are getting shorter, and here the mountains shorten them even more. The sun disappears earlier behind the peaks, turning them red. We are probably by now in the proper Alps. The powerful massifs start off an orange-yellow, then pass through all the shades of brick and end up blood red. Nightfall in the mountains is marvelous, with its special silence, the silence of the inside of a violin, an “acoustic” silence. At the nearest farm I borrowed a bundle of straw, we sit by the fire and chew the fat. When you travel by train or automobile, live in hotels and pay money even to have conversations, you can observe a country, but you can’t get to know it. You can get to know it only when you have to live there, earn your living, and count your pennies.
Uriage, September 22, 1940
Already sunny first thing in the morning. We were aroused early, by hunger as usual. Tadzio's first words: "Jędruś – let's eat." I get out the chocolate and, still drowsy, we slowly munch. Followed by a cigarette and the day really begins. I go for water and milk. Tadzio strikes camp. I love my almost daily morning walks. Wrapped in sweaters and scarves (in the morning there can often be frost – it's autumn), I take the bottles and meander slowly down the road, then along the paths through the fields, stopping by the farms. As a rule the whole house is still asleep and only the patron bustles about the yard with an entourage of chickens, ducks, and turkeys. They track his every step, waiting for him to throw them something. I stand quietly behind the fence and watch. A lively discussion unfolds between them. The patron says: Allez, allez, attendez, while the chickens loudly cluck in reply, the ducks, wheezing softly, nip at his pant legs, and the turkeys, with the look of corporate directors examining the morning post, describe casual arcs from afar and approach him around front. The way they walk, I'm sure they have their hands in their pockets and thick cigars in their beaks. In the silence, each sound is clear, framed by nothing. Fog hangs over the meadows, the grass glistens, and the mountain ranges stack up on all sides. The sight goes straight to my heart and casts a direct and quiet spell. As I look, I have the sense of hearing an older, wise and beautiful woman who is talking to me in a deep, level voice, and her every word brims with experience and emotion. At other times, it strikes me as a splendid tale that creates a mood, dense and straightforward, like the stories of Ivan Bunin or Katherine Mansfield, in which nothing happens, and yet so much has occurred; in which the pages are written not from left to right, but in depth, a bottomless depth.
At such moments I stand for awhile against the fence or under a tree, taking it all in, mind wandering, exposing whatever it is in us most susceptible to sound, color, the rays of the sun, smells, or a breeze. I turn into an instrument and allow myself to be played. There's no exaltation in this – it's a shower for the soul, just like a shower for the body, and I experience the same pleasure in them both. Each shower leaves me with the same magnificently intense feeling of life. Under a cold shower I always drink the water that whips me in the face; here – against the fence, under a tree – I drink life. All of us possess an inner gearbox, but few know how to use it. I discovered mine only a few months ago. At first I disengaged the reverse gear and for rather a long while was stuck in one place, but then I began to engage the other gears. Now I ride in fourth, if not even in the so-called "Schnellgang," or overdrive, which the great Mercedes are supposed to have.
But perhaps I'm mistaken? Perhaps we don't ourselves shift gears or release the clutch? Perhaps it's fate that does it. Often an entire life is spent in search of one's true self – and without success. It's a lottery that has few winners. Worst of all perhaps is to keep missing the chance to be oneself, always expecting to hit the jackpot, which for everyone consists precisely of finding oneself. Only from that moment can one become a true prize also for others. This is the only true prize – the rest are not true.
My notebook page has become damp from the mist and the copying pencil writes so clearly. All this because of those turkeys. They reminded me of the morning mail, of company directors, and of myself bowing obsequiously at the door. I had imagined I would find my true self there. What a misconception ... Tragic!... Brr...
Translated from the Polish by Grażyna Drabik and Laura Engelstein
The excerpts come from Andrzej Bobkowski’s Wartime Notebooks. France 1940-1944, Yale University Press, 2018